HENDERSON, Nev. — Donald Trump pushed back Wednesday on Hillary Clinton’s accusation that he’s cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin after the charge put Trump’s running mate on the defensive during the vice presidential debate.
Mr. Trump offered effusive praise for Mike Pence’s performance — but also claimed credit for it — even as both campaigns acknowledged that the sole vice presidential debate was unlikely to alter the race’s trajectory.
The lone showdown between the Indiana governor Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia attracted an average audience of 37 million viewers Tuesday, making it the smallest audience for a vice presidential debate since 2000.
The celebrity businessman said his relationship with Russia’s leader would be determined by how Moscow responds to strong U.S. leadership under a Trump administration.
“They say Donald Trump loves Putin. I don’t love, I don’t hate. We’ll see how it works,” Mr. Trump told a rally outside Las Vegas.
Ms. Clinton on Wednesday shrugged that off, saying Mr. Trump has “this weird fascination with dictators.”
“My opponent seems not to know the difference between an ally and adversary,” Ms. Clinton said at an evening fund raiser in Washington. “There seems to be some misunderstanding about what it means to have a dictatorship and provide leadership.”
The billionaire candidate sought to take away an argument that Ms. Clinton and her running mate, Mr. Kaine, have ramped up in the final weeks of the campaign as they work to portray Mr. Trump as dangerous for American interests overseas. While U.S.-Russia relations nosedive over failed diplomacy in Syria, Mr. Trump has complimented Mr. Putin, calling him a strong leader and even encouraging him to track down Ms. Clinton’s missing emails, though Mr. Trump later said he was being sarcastic.
“You guys love Russia,” Mr. Kaine said in Tuesday’s debate. “You both have said Vladimir Putin is a better leader than the president.”
In a forceful rebuke, Mr. Pence described Mr. Putin as a “small and bullying leader,” but blamed Ms. Clinton and President Barack Obama for a “weak and feckless” foreign policy that had awakened Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and meddling in the Middle East.
The U.S. and Russia back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war but both are fighting the Islamic State group there. The U.S. cut off talks with Russia about Syria this week after the latest cease-fire collapsed, blaming Russia for failing to fulfill its commitments under the deal.
“I can say this: If we get along and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of ISIS, that’s OK with me folks,” Mr. Trump said, using an acronym for the extremist group.
But he didn’t touch on Mr. Pence’s advocacy for an aggressive policy toward Syria, calling Tuesday for a no-fly zone and strikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The man atop the Republican ticket has voiced different ideas when it comes to Syria.
Mr. Pence was seen as doing well by dodging questions about Mr. Trump’s tax returns, comments he’s made about women and his immigration proposals. Even though he was seen as refusing to defend his running mate, Mr. Pence got away with it because he spoke with confidence — and because moderator Elaine Quijano of CBS News didn’t correct him. The Indiana governor prepared for the debate “since the night he received the call from Mr. Trump,” a campaign aide told ABC News, enlisting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as Kaine’s stand-in during practice sessions last week.
A CNN instant poll of debate watchers found that they thought by 48-42 that Mr. Pence did the better job Tuesday night, and Mr. Pence was seen as the more likable candidate by 53-37.
But the poll also found that watchers thought by 48-41 that Mr. Kaine had a better understanding of the issues, and they said by 58-35 that Mr. Kaine did the better job of defending his running mate.
On Wednesday, Latino scholars and activists were criticizing Mr. Pence for referring to “that Mexican thing,” at the vice presidential debate as he tried to brush aside criticism of Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants.
Since last week’s debate, Mr. Trump has faced a barrage of questions over a leaked tax return showing he lost more than $900 million in 1995. In turn, he’s sought to reframe his life story as a comeback tale he hopes to recreate on behalf of a faltering nation.
“America needs a turnaround. American needs a comeback. America needs a change. And that’s why I’m running,” Mr. Trump said.
Taking the stage in Henderson, Nev., Mr. Trump took his own victory lap for Mr. Pence’s performance, which he called “phenomenal. Mr. Pence’s cool demeanor contrasted with Mr. Trump’s bluster during his own, top-of-the-ticket showdown against Ms. Clinton. However strong Mr. Pence’s performance, Mr. Trump made clear he considers it a reflection of himself.
“I’m getting a lot of credit, because that’s really my first so-called choice, that was my first hire,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Pence.
Even Ms. Clinton’s team wasn’t claiming that Mr. Kaine had come out on top. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, his wife’s running mate “did just fine.”
But as the content of the vice presidential nominees’ answers began to be further scrutinized, some observers were questioning whether Mr. Kaine’s jarring interruptions, while giving Mr. Pence a victory on style-points alone, might have served another purpose.
“If nothing else, Tim Kaine has gotten Mike Pence to lie a lot in ways that can be juxtaposed with video and audio of Trump later,” Washington Post reporter Alyssa Rosenberg tweeted.
Armed with pre-planned Web videos, television ads and tweets, the campaign has used key debate moments this week and last as a cudgel against the Republican ticket. But the Republican National Committee released a video Wednesday that featured the 72 times that Mr. Kaine interrupted Mr. Pence.
Mr. Kaine acknowledged that even his wife gave him a hard time for his constant interruptions during the debate. But Mr. Kaine said he was effectively able to block Mr. Pence from attacking Ms. Clinton. “I’ve never played hockey but I think I’d be a good goalie, based on last night,” he said.
The big moment for their running mates behind them, both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump were shifting focus back to each other — and to Sunday’s debate, the second of three showdowns between the nominees.
Ms. Clinton was deep in debate prep Wednesday at her Washington home. She was huddling with campaign chairman John Podesta, top policy aid Jake Sullivan and her debate advisers.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, was on the campaign trail, making several stops across Nevada. In Reno, the New Yorker appeared to lecture Nevadans on how their state is correctly pronounced and then did an exaggerated version of his preferred pronunciation of “Neh-VAH-da,” though most residents of the Silver State pronounce it, “Neh-VAD-uh.” He then declared that “nobody says it the other way.”
Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said, despite Mr. Trump’s travels, the candidate was preparing “constantly” for the debate. Mr. Trump planned his own town hall in New Hampshire today, in an apparent dress rehearsal for the big event.
And Mr. Pence’s competent performance was seen as underscoring for many how ill-suited Mr. Trump is for the presidency.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump was facing a report from The Associated Press that he once hired George Gjieli, a convicted felon — a man who had tried to help a triple murderer break out of prison — to run Trump Tower. The man was later accused by former workers of perpetuating a cash-for-jobs scheme.
With the first two debates of the general election finished and early voting starting in many places, Ms. Clinton’s lead has strengthened in opinion polls in key states needed to win the White House, especially those with large minority populations.
But Mr. Trump’s core support among blue-collar white voters remains largely intact, giving him a base from which to try to stage a comeback in the campaign’s final phase, judging by a raft of new polls released in the past several days.
The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, McClatchy Newspapers, Tribune News Service, Los Angeles Times and CQ-Roll Call contributed.